Has tourism murdered travel writing? I don’t think so. Mass travel has liberated the form. No amount of package tours will stop ordinary life quietly continuing everywhere on earth. When I lived in Chile I found my weekly trawl round the supermarket gripping: watching women decide between this jar of dulce de leche or that one, weighing out their chirimoyas, loading up with boxes of washing powder. Don’t you sometimes find daily life almost unbearably poetic? Minute curiosity is a requirement of the travel writer – as it is of the biographer, novelist and poet. The significance of the trivial is what makes a piece of travel writing human, not the stuntish business of being the first person to paddle the Congo. Out there on the road, I have often found that the most aimless and boring interludes yield, in the long run, the most fertile material.
Throughout my own writing life, travel has loaned a vehicle in which to explore the inner terrain of fears and desires we stumble through every day. Writing about travel always has and always will allow flexibility and freedom within a rigid frame of train journeys, weather and a knackered tent. The creative process is an escape from personality (Eliot said that), and so is the open road. And a journey goes in fits and starts, like life.
For me every journey still yields energy, joy and, above all, hope. There is always a dash of human dignity to lift a story out of absurdity and farce, however ugly the background. The world everywhere, and simultaneously, is a beautiful and horrible place.
Photograph © Alexander Synaptic